In 1966, two years after beating Sonny Liston at the age of twenty-two, joining the Nation of Islam, and forsaking his “slave name” Cassius Clay, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali refused to enter the draft. He reasoned, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” A sound argument both then and now, but one that got him arrested on draft evasion charges, cost him his title, and resulted in his expulsion from boxing. He did not fight for four of his prime years, until 1971, when the Supreme Court overturned his draft evasion conviction and reinstated him. “There was much that Ali had — a gold medal, notoriety, fame, money,” noted the Philadelphia Tribune
“that he was willing to surrender for justice and integrity.”
When Muhammad Ali passed away the early morning of June 3, 2016 – surrounded by friends and family, as conflicting news reports of his rapidly deteriorating condition circulated on social media and broadcast news stations – journalists from nearly every corner of the world paused to assess his legacy. Newspapers from around the country, including Ali’s hometown newspaper in Louisville, Ky., the New York Times, and just about every other major U.S. urban daily, and newspapers from as far afield as London, Berlin, Istanbul, Taipei all commemorated on their front pages the “People’s Champion.”
In the weeks after his death, glossy commemorative special editions of Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, People, Time, USA Today, and Life crystallized Ali’s legacy through compelling visual narratives that more often than not depicted Ali before he was “Ali” – in 1964, when he was Cassius Clay, twenty-two years old, strikingly handsome, smiling. Having only moments before knocked out Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title, shouting at ringside “I must be the greatest!” as if everyone watching did not already know. Before he was “draft dodger” Muhammad Ali, stripped of his title and demonized by the American press who refused to call him by his Muslim name.
These tributes depicted young Ali as gregarious, egotistical, and outspoken. “Brash,” “boastful,” “brutal when he had to be” are just some of the descriptors that People used to describe him. “People reviled him, even scorned him. Some even feared him,” began Rolling Stone’s Mikal Gilmore. Later in his life, Ali was recast as softer and more approachable, and the narrative focus shifted to his humanitarian work – which was the focus of Politico’s stirring photo tribute – and battle with Parkinson’s Disease. These tributes superficially addressed his conviction and subsequent ban only in the context of a great American comeback story, much like the one described in Sports Illustrated’s “Muhammad Ali, The Tribute” and even Robert Lipsyte’s “Ali: The Greatest, “ published in Time’s commemorative edition. These celebratory narratives are attractive even if they fall short in reflecting the tumultuous racial landscape against which Ali rose to both fame and infamy. Ali’s charisma, which was as prevalent in private moments captured spontaneously as it was when he was posturing in front of a swarm of journalists, made him irresistible. Ali was, to quote GQ’s Peter Richmond, a “national treasure.”
Commemorative journalism is ritualistic. It allows us, as a society, to come together and collectively mourn for a figure that we may not have know personally, but with whom through media have formed strong parasocial ties over the years. When ESPN televised Ali’s funeral I cried on my couch as if I had lost a family member. Through commemoration, public figures become venerated, as journalists provide as narrative closure their ultimate contribution to society. For Ali, the one “who would never stay down, no matter what,” his major contribution was resilience – against his opponents, the government, Parkinson’s disease. Because he rose again and again, clearly, so have “we.”
I have previously discussed the symbolic power of “celebrity” for Black communities during the long struggle towards civil rights, arguing that Black press urban weeklies, in conjunction with W.E.B. Du Bois’s the Crisis glossy magazine joined later by Jet, Ebony, and Essence, provided the staging ground for conceptualizing Black-centered celebrity. I have also argued that mere publicity of Black celebrities was not sufficient for those citizens “living behind the veil.” Black-centered celebrity culture was defined not by public admiration and aspiration to upward social mobility (as was the case with Hollywood’s “star system”) but rather by an activist ethos shaped by American racism.
Ali was a civil rights activist. Tony Norman’s June 7 tribute reminds readers that “Mr. Ali’s outspokenness was so refreshing to millions of Black Americans — he modeled a compelling voice of dignity and defiance, especially in those early years following Martin Luther King’s assassination.” Norman, writing in the context of his childhood in 1960s West Philadelphia, recasts Ali as not the universal hero but as a racially transgressive figure, unafraid to “sass” Whites during a period of widespread institutionalized hatred and violence against Black Americans. Gillian B. White’s tribute to Ali and her father’s admiration of him in The Atlantic similarly repositions Ali as a symbol of Black American identity.
With the well-documented demise of Black-centered media companies, it has become increasingly difficult to find voices that shape and interpret the lasting legacy of Black-centered celebrity in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black press newspapers and magazines have suffered a precipitous decline over the past 50 years as advertisers have found new ways to reach Black audiences and media conglomeration has pushed alternative and niche media companies to the fringes. The recent sale of Ebony and Jet magazines by Johnson Publishing has left two of the nation’s strongest and most revered Black publications with uncertain futures. To wit, journalistic voices that belong to people of color become chilled – there are very few mainstream publications with representative numbers of Black or Brown journalists, editors, or photographers. The whitewashing of Ali in journalistic commemoration upon his death is indicative of the lack of independent voices of color in shaping these commemorative narratives.
Through commemoration Ali has been transformed into a universal figure whom we as a culture can now, in the vast gulf between the living and the dead, safely define as the kind of American hero with which we feel most secure, a cipher through which we can make sense of (read: absolve ourselves of) years of racial acrimony.